A Different Place

Two new co-authored reports on Afghanistan

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Just a short post. Two reports that I co-authored have just been published. They were both finished a few months back, but they’re not so time-sensitive that this will make much of a difference.

The first is for Chatham House, written together with Felix Kuehn. You can read the executive summary here, and download the full report here. The central point we were trying to get across is that a political settlement in Afghanistan must be about more than just ‘talks with the Taliban’. That ship has sailed, and new realities mean it’s important to bring all parties into a discussion about the future. I remain skeptical as to internal and external parties’ ability to make this happen, but here’s hoping…

The second report, much longer, was mainly an effort of Felix Kuehn and Leah Farrall but I contributed some things on the sidelines. This was expert witness testimony in the case of US vs. Talha Ahsan and US vs. Babar Ahmad. You can read some of the background to the case here and here. The report we were tasked with writing related to Talha and Babar’s activities in Afghanistan during the 1990s, and the extent to which this equated with support for or ‘membership’ in al-Qaeda. Felix and I have already written a decent amount on the topic, but it was great to team up with Leah to dive into the foreign fighters’ side a great deal more.

You can read our report here, starting on page 148. It’s a long report, but there’s a lot of new material in there which has never been published (as far as I’m aware).

I’d also recommend reading through the judge’s statement Talha’s sentencing memo. I don’t quite understand why there hasn’t been more media coverage of this trial, and how the government were more or less told their case was extremely rickety. Perhaps it’s because of all the other things going on at the moment.

UPDATE: Edited on August 11 to reflect error in identifying the sentencing memo.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

August 9th, 2014 at 11:20 am

How to learn a language to fluency: interview with Gabe Wyner

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Gabe Wyner has a book out today, and I took the time to interview him about his method. It relies on several things I’ve mentioned on this blog before — namely Lang-8, Anki, spaced repetition, mnemonics etc — so I’m trying out something new: posting the audio of the interview I did a few days ago.

Gabe’s book is worth your time, especially if you’re getting back into learning languages, or if you’re starting for the first time. If you have less patience for books and the written word, you can watch his course over on CreativeLive. It’s 18-hours of instruction (in an classroom environment) on how to learn a language using his method. All the steps outlined in his book are expanded upon in this course. I have watched it all, and can attest to its value.

The interview can be listened to on Soundcloud or directly below:

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

August 5th, 2014 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Books,Language,Podcast

The Best Books I Read in 2013

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This year was a big one. 79 books in total, and still a few days to go.

I only have one Afghanistan-related pick this year, and that’s Vanessa M. Gezari’s The Tender Soldier. Gezari’s tale of incompetence, misunderstanding and tragedy packs a punch. Some of the middle sections of the book — profiling those involved higher up in the Human Terrain Teams’ management — could probably have been ditched. Speed through them, though, and you have a story whose complexity and strangeness has the eerie ring of reality. Definetely the best book I’ve read on Afghanistan in recent years.

The rest of my favourites are a bit all over the place:

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch needs no selling by me, but it’s a real return to true form. As always with Tartt, be careful when you start as it is incredibly gripping and you’ll be neglecting work, friends and family in order to keep reading. Also, be careful: this one’s a bit of an emotional kick-in-the-guts.

Jon Moallem wrote Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America as a way of reconnecting with the natural world while his daughter grew up, and it was one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable books I read this year. Stories about conservation, humans and how we interact with all the other species on the planet. The book is broadly structured in three parts, covering polar bears, butterflies (Lange’s Metalmark) and the whooping crane. Mooallem looks at the ways in which people are involved in efforts to save these three species, often ending up telling us more about humans than the animals that are nominally his subject. He tells a hopeful tale, for the most part, and although his slightly saccharine ending wasn’t really to my taste, it probably is correctly pitched for an American audience. We don’t understand the effects of our actions in the world, or when we think we do, we don’t anticipate second and third-order consequences. It’s not a new idea, but it was memorably told in this well-written book.

Lion Kimbro’s How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think (available for free here) isn’t new, and it definitely wins the strangest-book-of-2013 prize. Kimbro decides he wants to map out his thoughts 24-7 for a few months and the book is a description of the process he used to map it all out. It’s written in a stream-of-consciousness style, and there’s an awful lot about pens and paper and binders and organisational systems and information hygiene (for want of a better term). There’s a lot worth taking away from the experiment, though, and if you can make it through the book you’ll have learnt a few tricks on the way.

I LOVED Matt Potter’s Outlaws Inc., the first book I’ve read where a piece of technology (in this case the IL-76 cargo plane) is a lead character, but WHAT a story. Potter takes you through the world of air cargo transport and the post-Soviet airmen who fly the planes. It’s perhaps a bit long, but that’s probably me being unfair. I was up all night reading this book. Definitely recommend it for shining a light on something I hadn’t really thought about but that is very much a part of trade and international aid.

Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language wasn’t an easy read, but it’s the smartest (and easy-to-understand) book on linguistics I’ve read. It offers an overview of how languages work, and how they change over time (fragmenting and joining together in a myriad of strange ways). I’m looking forward to reading Deutscher’s other book in 2014.

I’ve been a big fan of Marie (aka puredoxyk) for about a year now. I did a 2-month experiment switching to a polyphasic sleep cycle earlier this year — that’s 2-4 hours of sleep only per day, depending on various things — and I couldn’t have done it without her book Ubersleep: Nap-Based Sleep Schedules and the Polyphasic Lifestyle. (She’s also very nice/helpful online). This book offers clear, useful advice on shifting to a polyphasic sleep cycle. If you’re interested in sleep modification (and being able to sleep only 2 or 4 hours per day without medium-long-term issues), give this book a read. If nothing else, it’ll expand your sense of what is possible, and that’s always a good thing.

Finally, two health-related books. The past couple of years have been filled with various health issues (some mine, and some of others close to me) and I read more about health, fitness and diet than usual. Anti-Cancer by David Servan-Schreiber was one of the more helpful books on cancer that I read. It could probably use a bit of updating, but it is clear, offers evidence with references to follow up with further reading, along with useful lists of the basic ingredients of the so-called ‘anti-cancer’ diet. Was also glad to see that emphasis is placed on the mind-body connection. Could easily have been left out with all the focus on diet and nutrition. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn has a bit of a hippy title, but it’s full of really important and powerful techniques. I’d strongly recommend it to anyone with ongoing chronic pain/illness issues.

Those were the best. Drop your book recommendations for 2014 in the comments below. I’m going to try for 100…

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

December 27th, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Posted in Books

Taliban Time Travel, or How Our Understanding Is Almost Always Two Years Old

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I’ve been noticing something on twitter and in the public debate surrounding the Afghan Taliban over the past few days. An interview of Motassim in the Guardian last week was shared widely online, and people particularly seemed to find his comments about Mullah Mohammad Omar’s loss of control of the Taliban interesting. To those following the Taliban closely this isn’t news. It’s been the case for two or three years at least.

What is interesting is that it has taken that long for that kind of analysis and comment to become accepted by mainstream commentators and to become part of the public debate on the Afghan Taliban.

My very unscientific guess is that there’s usually a lag of 6-18 months from a trend starting to emerge within the Taliban to the point where those outside the movement start to notice it. And from there there’s another 1-2 years before a particular feature or analytical point becomes accepted and part of public discourse.

Needless to say, this incredibly slow dispersal of understanding makes it hard for analysis and action to mesh together usefully.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

September 23rd, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Book of the Week: ‘Al-Shabab in Somalia’

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An excellent overview of the history of the Somali al-Shabab group, one with many lessons or reminders of Afghanistan (at least for this reader).

This is a short book, based on some reports written for FFI and others, and in that it has the virtue of concision. Hansen covers al-Shabab’s history starting with early proto-Islamist movements and groups started several decades ago. It was the best explanation of where the networks that make up al-Shabab come from that I’ve read, although it may just be that I haven’t been following this too closely since the last time I was last in Mogadishu a couple of years ago.

It was packed with stories and trends that reminded me of Afghanistan, both in the way the international actors chose to respond and intervene, and also in the development of al-Shabab itself. For this reason I’d strongly recommend this book to those working in and on Afghanistan. You’ll find a rich vein of material that you can bring back to enrich your understanding of the Taliban and/or the past decade or three. (Needless to say, I’m the last person to suggest that everything is the same in every country, and that there aren’t hundreds of reasons why comparisons aren’t useful in a this-happened-in-somalia-so-it-must-be-the-same-in-afghanistan.)

There are lots of names and places mentioned, and if you’re not familiar with at least the bare outlines of the plot so far as well as some of the key players, you might find it confusing. I wish there was some sort of reference in the back to allow you to keep track of all the different people mentioned.

As always, I wasn’t really sure I got a sense of the leaders of al-Shabab (or their fighters) as people in this book, but maybe that’s one step too far and one in which it’s harder to offer anything that isn’t highly subjective or just unrepresentative. Perhaps we can look forward to a book of al-Shabab’s songs and poems from Hurst in the future?

Overall, though, an impressive collation of information. Hansen has done us all a service in spending time in Somalia doing fieldwork and in taking the time to put this book together.

Buy it here.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

July 20th, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Translators Sought — Job Opening

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I’m about to start a large archive translation project (together with Felix Kuehn and Anand Gopal).

We’re looking for some high-quality translators to work full-time on a project translating old newspapers and magazines from Pashto (and a small amount of Dari) into English.

The work would be 5 days per week, but you will be free to work from home. I.e. there will almost certainly not be any office for you to work from.

The project will take place over the course of a year, with a possible extension to a second year. We would initially hire you for a trial period before committing to hire you for the full year.

If you’re interested, please head on over to the form here and fill it out. We’ll get back to you in due course, if and when we’re ready to start the hiring process.

UPDATE (JULY): We’ve stopped taking applications and are working on finalising the hiring process. Thanks for all your interest!

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

April 20th, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Learning to Code

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Previous posts have been about languages and how to learn them. Not all languages are for communication with other people, though. It is a truism that more and more of our lives are lived through various technologies — be it computers, ‘smart’ phones or other appliances — but we often aren’t too good at understanding how those things work.

I’ve been trying to remedy this by getting a better understanding of the back end through programming languages. Not only has it been an interesting intellectual exercise, but I have found practical applications for the skills I have learnt. Recently, for example, I wrote a piece of code that crawled through webpages, saving only the parts of text that I needed to a separate database.

There is a huge variety of things that you can try out here, so I’ll just offer some suggestions for things that I’ve found useful along the way. Most of this is aimed at complete beginners. I’ll assume that’s where you are as well.

Python is considered by many (if not most) to be the best place to start as a novice programmer. It teaches lots of transferrable skills that can be applied to other languages that you might want to pick up.

My top recommendation would be to enrol in Udacity’s CS101 course. Udacity is a relative newcomer to the scene, but I’ve found the parts of this course that I’ve done (I’m still working my way through) to be excellent. It has LOTS of practice, frequent testing of your ability to solve problems along the way, and is not dull to watch at all (as some of these courses are). What’s more, by the end of the course you will have built your own search engine using the skills you’ve learnt. It’s free, so you have no excuse. Go sign up.

(If that’s not for you, although I’m not sure why that would be the case, then visit Codeacademy or Learn Python The Hard Way for alternatives.)

In case you’re interested in learning Ruby, you can try the following, many of which are designed for young children to be able to use and follow along, so, again, no excuses…



Hackety Hack

Rails for Zombies

CodeAcademy Ruby

LearnStreet.com Ruby

Now go try some of those out…

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

February 4th, 2013 at 8:30 pm

Posted in Tech

Following Pakistan’s Elections

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Saba Imtiaz, a freelance journalist based in Karachi, has started a daily newsletter of updates relating to Pakistan’s upcoming elections — scheduled to take place this summer. She explains what she’ll be offering in a recent blogpost:

Along with a round-up of the headlines and commentary from English, Urdu and Sindhi news sources, I’ll also be writing smaller profiles of candidates and major news issues, as well as doing smaller data dumps on voting patterns


View some of the updates here and subscribe to the newsletter via email here and via RSS here.

If you follow Colin Cookman’s excellent Daily New Briefs then you’ll probably want to subscribe to Saba’s election update.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

January 22nd, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Journalism,Pakistan

ISAF’s First Fifteen Days

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I have been working on the ISAF press releases data again. Just as a little teaser, here’s a chart comparing the first fifteen days of January in 2011, 2012 and 2013. It shows the number of ISAF operations in which someone was captured or killed (as reported in their press releases).


The second chart compares the numbers of operations carried out over the course of the first fifteen days of the month, as well as the numbers of people who were killed or detained during the course of those operations.


The third chart compares the numbers of leaders and facilitators who were removed from the fight in some way (either killed or detained).

Note that all the data for the above charts comes from ISAF’s press release reporting. ISAF under-report incidents, so there will have been more operations and deaths and detentions etc than are mentioned here.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

January 15th, 2013 at 2:09 pm

A Jedi-Mind Trick and Three Other Approaches to Learning Vocabulary

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[My last post on the study of languages seems to have been well-received so I thought I'd add a few thoughts on the study of vocabulary. For some reason it's another stumbling block for many people who lack a system to be able to manage their vocabulary learning. I hope that by the time you finish reading this post you'll have some approaches and tools to think about, at the very least.]

There are three things you need to know about and do when it comes down to learning vocabulary, possibly four.

1. Word Association

This is pretty basic stuff as far as vocab learning goes, but if you don’t know it it can be something of a revelation. See this (and click through the following links) for a basic outline.

The basic task here is to associate the meaning along with the sound of the word.

The trick with word association is to make the images in your head as crazy as possible. You need to make it stick in your mind, so the more outrageous the image, the more it’s going to stick. You might think it takes too long to imagine these scenes/images (that I’ll describe) but it’ll pay off in the long-run.

So, what you have to do is take a word and mentally associate it with its meaning. Take the Arabic word mumill (meaning ‘boring’). Close your eyes if you need to. When I see that word, I think of two things — MOO (the sound that the cow makes) and then a flour MILL. And somehow I have to try to associate those two things with the concept of ‘boring’. So I imagine a flour mill, an old slightly dusty stone flour mill. You can hear the slow grinding of the mill on the flour, grinding it down to a fine powder. You can smell a bit of the flour in the air; perhaps the particles in the air are brushing against your face, getting in your hair. You can see the dark stone. When you touch the mill itself, it’s a bit warm to the touch from all the grinding it’s been doing. When you turn and look to see who’s driving/pushing the millstone, to your surprise you see that it’s a cow, who makes a gratifyingly loud ‘MOO’ sound when she sees you. When the cow walks past, you can smell the ‘cow smell’ and she’s warm to the touch as well (having worked so hard). You see that she’s extremely bored doing her milling, and you see that in one paw/hand/foot she has a sudoku game (or whatever) that she’s doing while she pushes the millstone around and around to stop herself from being too bored.

Anyway, that’s more or less what you have to do for every word. Split it up into sounds and then do this word association. The important things are to:

a) use all the senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing) in your association, because that’s what will make it really stick in your mind and

b) make the images/scenes you create as wild as possible.

Learning professionals usually suggest to play on the deeper patterns, including things that are embarrassing etc etc, so try to bring all of that into your visualisation. Also, personalise the images. It needs to resonate FOR YOU. Use objects that evoke very specific and strong emotions: love, sex, war, your late relative, object of your infatuation, whatever it is; it is well known that emotional states and the full sensory palette can facilitate recall.

The point with all of this isn’t that you are going to remember all of this image when you hear the word ‘mumill’. Your brain will move much faster than that, and you’ll just get a glimpse at the image and that’ll be enough to jog your memory to provide the translation ‘boring’. After a while (I’ll explain below), you won’t need the image any more, but it’ll be there if you need it.

For Arabic, one of the issues is often that you have a long list of verbs, all with 3 letters with the same vowelling — darasa, faqada, hamala etc etc — and that can sometimes make it difficult to distinguish the words. But, like I said, split them up into two parts if you can, or find some way to make them stand out or associate them with something you already know.

2. Iversen’s Lists

You should have gone through your list of words that you have to memorise and do this for every single word. I will assume that you will have a bit of learning to do each week or each day, incrementally, rather than getting all your words at once to learn for the entire year all in one go.

So do the association technique first. Then take a blank piece of paper — A4 is good (or whatever the US equivalent is) — and write a list of the words you have to learn today on the left side of the page. Try not to take up too much space. Maybe it’s 20 words. Write them down on the left side of the page.

Then take a ruler or draw a line alongside that list and to the right of the line, (perhaps in a different colour pen), write the translation of that word. Do that for all the words. If you don’t know the word, then the memorisation image/association hasn’t stuck, so you can look up the correct answer and make sure that your association sticks this time.

Once you’ve completed this first test, take another piece of paper (or, better still, something thicker like a book so you can’t cheat) and cover up the first column. Now you only have your answers to look at, and you should draw another line and then write the translations. (i.e. translating things back into the original language). Do all the translations for the list, then check whether you got them right.

Then you should repeat this until the entire piece of paper (both sides) are covered with translations back and forth. If you write small-ish, you should be able to get a good 6 or 7 rounds of translations/testing in (if not more).

Perhaps don’t do all of these sessions at once. Do one side of the page in one go, and then leave other sessions for later in the day (for reasons I’ll explain now).

3. Spaced Repetition & Anki

The really Jedi vocabulary learning trick requires that you know a bit about how the mind works and how quickly we forget. Take a look at this graph. This basically shows how the memory forgets.


So, following the red line, when you first learn a word (or a piece of information, or anything) if you try to remember it within an hour or so, the memory is pretty good. If you try to recall that fact 6 days later (without any study in between), you’ll see (by following the red line to day 6) that the memory for such facts can swiftly decline pretty quickly.

There is a way to avoid this, though, which is something called spaced repetition. Because this half-life or rate of decline of memory is predictable (i.e. everyone has this curve, and how quickly it takes you to forget stuff is more or less stable/calculable), if you remind yourself of the word or fact within certain times, then you will be able to ‘reset’ the forgetting curve. The great thing about this ‘reset’ process, is that each time you do it, it takes longer to forget.

For example, let’s say you learned the word for mumill just now. You’d ideally want to recall that word 30 minutes after you learned it. Then an hour later, then 3 hours later, then 6 hours later, then 12 hours later, then 24 hours later, then 3 days later, then 1 week later, then 3 weeks later, then 5 weeks, then 2.5 months etc etc).

So if you keep catching the words at the point just before you forget them, you can steadily put the fact/word deeper into your long-term memory.

But, you may ask, how do you remember when the last time you tested yourself on a particular word? How do you ensure that you catch this ‘forgetting curve’ and know how far along you are with memorisation…

Luckily, a bunch of people have already taken care of this and thought it through, and there’s a piece of software which will save your life. I wish I’d had it when I was learning languages at university.

It’s called Anki, and you can download it here. They’ve just released version 2.0. It’s free. There are other imitations, but Anki is really the gold standard here. Don’t bother looking around. Anki is the real deal.

So with this programme you create a ‘collection’ of words. You have to input your vocabulary (just one side — i.e. just Arabic-English or English-Arabic) into the programme. Once one person has done it, then you can share the decks of flashcards (either online or as offline files), so you can immediately become the most popular person on your course if you do a full collection for your course, I would guess. (For more obscure languages, and I include Pashto in this pantheon, there are some true heros who assemble vocabulary lists and upload them to sharing sites for others to use).

Anyway, once you’ve inputted the cards, it will test you on the words in both directions (i.e. Eng-Ar as well as Ar-Eng) automatically.

Then you just start learning. You can state how many new words you want to learn each day. I’d recommend no more than 20. And, IMPORTANT POINT, you should do steps 1 and 2 (as I explained above) BEFORE you do a round with Anki. i.e. first do the word association stuff, then do a day learning the words with the lists and the blank piece of paper and the columns, and then the next day you should learn those words in Anki. It’ll auto-test you the words and you pick an option whether the word was easy to remember, hard, very hard, or whether you didn’t remember it at all.

Depending on which option you pick for each word (when you see the answer), it’ll then remember which forgetting curve to assign to the word, and it’ll remind you that you need to review that piece of vocabulary/fact at the appropriate time.

So let’s say in 1 month from now, the word mumill shows up on the screen, and you eventually remember it, but it took a bit of time. You press ‘very hard to remember’ and it’ll remind you of that word in 18 days (approx) since it recognises that you need a bit more time before it really ends up in your longer-term memory.

Then once you’ve started with Anki, you just have to make sure to return to Anki once a day and study the words that show up for review. Luckily there is a mobile version of Anki available (for iPhone/iPad as well as Android). I’ll assume you have a phone which is either an iphone or an android. The mobile versions you have to pay for. But it’s completely worth it.

This means that whenever you’re stuck in a bus, or waiting in a queue or something, you just need to pull out your phone and you can review a few words on Anki. It has all the same features as the desktop version (apart from the ability to add words, I think). It’s also a good idea to include audio along with each vocab entry which will be another sensory association and input that will help imprint the word in your mind.

The trick here, and it’s really important, is to do it every day. If you only do it once a week, then you’ll forget words more often (as the forgetting curve means you’ll have missed the chance to reactivate or ‘reset’ the curve on words during the week). I really strongly recommend you do your Anki words once a day. Some days there won’t be any words, or very few (depending on how many your course has you learning).

4. (Writing/Reading for Extra Imprinting)

If you really want to get to a high level in your vocab learning, then use it to support your more general skills. i.e. you should use the vocab words in context.

When I use Anki, I sometimes like to take each word (when it comes up on the screen for testing/study) and before I give my answer, I first make myself use that word in a sentence. This allows me to practice grammar structures, and also creates new associations for that word with other pieces of material. (For the memory, more associations are better, since things are recalled via these webs/networks of signals in the mind). Even better, write these sentences down (although by now we’re talking study/exercises that take a bit of time, rather than just Anki etc, which would take maximum 20 minutes per day).

The ideal place for practicing your writing is lang-8.com, where you can get a free account. The principle here is that everyone corrects everyone else. i.e. when you put up a few sentences of writing practice, native Arabic speakers (or whatever language) will correct your sentences, but ideally you should correct their English sentences etc to return the favour. It’s all free, and done on an honour system, so you get as much as you give etc.

I use it for my Urdu, Arabic and Pashto studies, and you’ll usually get a correction for things you post there within 12-24 hours, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

Another really good way to reinforce your vocabulary is to read a lot. Most of the studies of language study and learning (see last week’s post) now agree that ‘intensive reading practice’ is the best way to build up your vocabulary. Obviously, you need to start with texts that are somewhat comprehensible and then slowly build up, and it can be really difficult. Sometimes you think that you’re just reading gobbledegook. But slowly, if you stick at it, weeks later, you’ll be able to read more and more, and you’ll be learning words without the need to memorise and go through all the systems above (although if the word’s giving you problems, or if you’d really like to remember it, then by all means add it to Anki etc) because you’ll be using and seeing that word in the context of the sentence / words around it etc.

Anyway, none of this is a substitute for the somewhat-hard work that goes into learning vocabulary, but it certainly can shortcut things. Particularly if you start inputting your vocabulary into Anki early on in the course of your language studies, and reviewing it every day throughout the year, by the end of a year you’ll be in a really good place compared to others.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

January 13th, 2013 at 8:27 pm

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